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The Razor’s Edge

Half a Life

by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 211 pp., $24.00. To be released in early 2002.

In later life the English writer W. Somerset Maugham developed an interest in Indian spirituality. He visited India in 1938, and in Madras was taken to an ashram to meet a man who, born Venkataraman, had retreated to a life of silence, self-mortification, and prayer, and was now known simply as the Maharshi.

While waiting for his audience, Maugham fainted, perhaps because of the heat. When he came to, he found he could not speak (it must be mentioned that Maugham was a lifelong stammerer). The Maharshi comforted him by pronouncing that “silence also is conversation.”

News of the fainting fit, according to Maugham, soon spread across India: through the power of the Maharshi, it was said, the pilgrim had been translated into the realm of the infinite. Though Maugham had no recollection of visiting the infinite, the event left its mark on him: he describes it in A Writer’s Notebook (1949) and again in Points of View (1958); he also works it into The Razor’s Edge (1944), the novel that made his name in the United States.

The Razor’s Edge tells the story of an American who, having prepared himself by acquiring a deep tan and donning Indian garb, visits the guru Shri Ganesha and at his hands has an ecstatic spiritual experience, “an experience of the same order as the mystics have had all over the world through all the centuries.” With Shri Ganesha’s blessing, this proto-hippie returns to Illinois, where he plans to practice “calmness, forbearance, compassion, selflessness and continence” while driving a taxi. “It’s a mistake to think that those holy men of India lead useless lives,” he says. “They are a shining light in the darkness.”

The story of the happy symbiosis between Venkataraman the holy man and Maugham the writer, Venkataraman providing Maugham with a marketable version of Indian spirituality, Maugham providing Venkataraman with publicity and tourist business, forms the starting point for V.S. Naipaul’s new novel Half a Life.

Was the historical Venkataraman, dispenser of gnomic wisdom, a fake? This is not what concerns Naipaul here. Fasting, celibacy, silence: Why do people make self-denial their central religious practice, in India in particular, and what are the human consequences? In rewriting, in free fashion, the story of Somerset Maugham and the holy man, these become the questions Naipaul explores instead.

To understand the story, Naipaul suggests, we need to view Indian asceticism historically. Once upon a time Hindu temples supported an entire priestly caste. Then, as a result of foreign invasions, first Muslim, later British, the temples lost their revenues. The priests became trapped in a vicious cycle: poverty led to loss of energy and desire, which led to passivity, which led to deeper poverty. The caste was in terminal decline. Instead of quitting temple life, however, the caste came up with an ingenious transvaluation of values: not eating, and denial of the appetites in general, was propagated as admirable in itself, worthy of veneration and hence of tribute.

This is Naipaul’s briskly materialist account of how a Brahmin ethos of self-denial and fatalism, an ethos that scorned individual enterprise and hard work, gained the high ground in India. In Naipaul’s story, a nineteenth-century Brahmin named Chandran has the gumption to break out of the system. He saves his pennies, journeys to the nearest big town—the capital of one of the “independent” backwater states in British India—and gets a job as a clerk in the maharajah’s palace. His son continues the climb of the family through the ranks of the civil service. All seems well: the Chandrans have found a safe niche for themselves, and they no longer have to mortify their bodies either.

But the grandson (we are now in the 1930s) is a rebel of a kind. Rumors of Gandhi and his nationalist movement abound. The Mahatma calls for a boycott of universities; the grandson (henceforth called simply Chandran) responds by burning his Shelley and Hardy in the college yard (he does not like literature anyway). He waits for a storm to break over his head, but no one has noticed.

Gandhi proclaims that the caste system is wrong. How does a Brahmin fight the caste system? Answer: by marrying down. Chandran picks on an ugly, dark-skinned girl in his class belonging to a so-called backward caste—in everyday parlance, a “backward”—and pays court to her in clumsy fashion. In no time at all the girl, using lies and threats, has compelled him to make good on his promises.

In disgrace, Chandran is set to work in the maharajah’s tax office. There he indulges in surreptitious acts of what he tells himself is civil disobedience, though his true motives are idle and malicious. His mischief exposed, and about to be tried, he takes sanctuary in a temple, where he protects himself from what he chooses to call persecution by taking a vow of silence. His vow turns him into a local hero. People come to watch him being silent and to bring offerings.

It is into this hotbed of deceit and hypocrisy that the gullible Westerner Somerset Maugham treads. “Are you happy?” Maugham asks the holy man. Using pencil and pad, Chandran replies: “Within my silence I feel quite free. That is happiness.” What wisdom! thinks Maugham. The comedy is rich: the freedom Chandran enjoys is freedom from prosecution.

Maugham publishes a book, and Chandran is suddenly famous—famous for having been written about by a foreigner. Visitors from abroad follow in Maugham’s footsteps. To them Chandran recounts how he gave up a glittering career in the civil service for a life of prayer and self-sacrifice. Soon he comes to believe his own lies. Following the lead of his Brahmin ancestors, he has found a way of repudiating the world yet prospering. He sees no irony in this. Instead he is awed: a “higher power” must be guiding him, he thinks.

Like Kafka’s hunger artist, Chandran makes a living doing what he secretly finds easy: denying his appetites (though his appetites are not so exiguous that he cannot father two children on his “backward” wife). In Kafka’s story, despite the hunger artist’s protestations to the contrary, there is a certain heroism in self-starving, a minimal heroism befitting post-heroic times. In Chandran there is no heroism: it is genuine poverty of spirit that allows him to be content with so little.

In his first and most critical book about India, An Area of Darkness (1964), Naipaul describes Gandhi as a man deeply influenced by Christian ethics, capable, after twenty years in South Africa, of seeing India with the critical eye of an outsider, and in this sense “the least Indian of Indian leaders.” But India undid Gandhi, says Naipaul, turning him into a mahatma, an icon, so as to ignore his social message.

Chandran likes to think of himself as a follower of Gandhi. But, Naipaul suggests implicitly, the question Chandran is asking of himself is not the Gandhian “How shall I act?” but the Hindu “What shall I give up?” He prefers giving up because giving up costs him nothing.

In honor of his British patron, Chandran names his first-born William Somerset Chandran. Since young Willie comes from a mixed (mixed-caste) marriage, it is thought prudent to send him to a Christian school. Soon Willie longs to be a missionary and a Canadian like his teachers. In his English compositions he fantasizes himself as a regular Canadian boy with a “Mom” and a “Pop” and a car. His teachers reward him with high marks, but his father is hurt to find himself written out of his son’s life.

In due course, however, Willie finds out what the missionaries are really after: converts to Christianity, the destruction of heathen religion. Feeling fooled, he stops going to school.

Calling in old debts, Chandran writes to Maugham asking him to pull strings on the boy’s behalf. He gets a typewritten letter back: “Dear Chandran, It was very nice getting your letter. I have nice memories of the country, and it is nice hearing from Indian friends. Yours very sincerely…” Other foreign friends prove equally evasive. Then someone in the British House of Lords waves a wand and Willie, at the age of twenty, is whisked across the seas on a college scholarship.

The year is 1956. London is bursting at the seams with immigrants from the Caribbean. Before long race riots break out: young whites in mock Edwardian clothes roam the streets looking for blacks to beat up. Willie hides in his college rooms. Hiding out is not a new experience for him: it is what he does at home when there are caste riots.

What Willie learns about in London is, principally, sex. The girlfriend of a Jamaican fellow student takes pity on him and relieves him of his virginity. She then gives him a useful little cross-cultural lecture. Marriages in India are arranged, she says, so Indian men don’t think they need to satisfy a woman sexually. But things are different in England. He should try harder. Willie consults a paperback called The Physiology of Sex and learns that the average man can maintain an erection for ten or fifteen minutes. He refuses to read further.

How did you learn about sex?” he asks his Jamaican friend. Sex is a brutal business, the friend replies; you have to start young. Willie is dismayed. In Jamaica boys practice by “fingering and then raping little girls.” How is he, coming from a culture where there is no such thing as seduction and no “art of sex,” going to find a girlfriend?

He plucks up the courage to approach a streetwalker. Their intercourse is joyless and humiliating: “Fuck like an Englishman,” the woman commands when he takes too long.

Chandran the charlatan sadhu and his son the inept lover: they might seem the stuff of comedy, but not in Naipaul’s hands. Naipaul is a master of English prose, and the prose of Half a Life is as clean and cold as a knife. The male Chandrans are defective human beings who leave the reader chilled rather than amused; the “backward” wife and Willie’s sister, who grows into a smug left-wing fellow traveler, are little better.

Both father and son believe they see through other people. But they detect lies and self-deception all around them only because they are incapable of imagining anyone unlike themselves. Their shrewdness of insight is grounded in nothing but a self-protective reflex of suspicion. Their rule of thumb is always to give the least charitable interpretation. Self-absorption, minginess of spirit, rather than inexperience, are at the root of Willie’s failures in love.

As for his father, a measure of his constitutional meanness is his response to books. As a student, he does not “understand” the courses he is taking, and in particular does not “understand” literature. The education he is subjected to, principally English literature taught by rote, is certainly irrelevant to his life. Nevertheless, there is in him a deep impulse not to understand, not to know. He is, strictly speaking, ineducable. His bonfire of the classics is not a healthily critical response to a deadening colonial education. It does not free him for another, better kind of education, for he has no idea of what a good education might be. In fact, he has no ideas at all.

Willie is similarly blank-minded. Arriving in Britain, he is soon made aware of how ignorant he is. But in a typical reflex action he finds someone else to blame, in this case his mother: he is incurious about the world because he is the child of a “backward.” Inheritance is character is fate.

College life shows him that Indian etiquette is as irrational and quaint as British etiquette. But this insight does not spell the beginning of self-knowledge. I know about both India and England, he reasons, whereas the English know only about England, therefore I am free to say what I like about my country. He invents a new and less shameful past for himself, turning his mother into a member of an ancient Christian community and his father into the son of a courtier. “He began to re-make himself. It excited him, and began to give him a feeling of power.”

Why are this unappealing pair the way they are? What do they reveal about the society that produced them? Here the key word is sacrifice. Willie has been quick to identify the joylessness at the heart of his father’s brand of Gandhianism because he knows at first hand what it is like to be given up. One of Willie’s schoolboy stories is about a Brahmin who ritually sacrifices “backward” children for the sake of riches, and ends up sacrificing his own two children. It is this story, titled “A Life of Sacrifice,” with its not so covert accusation against him, that determines Chandran—a man who makes a living out of what he calls self-sacrifice—to send his son to England: “The boy will poison what remains of my life. I must get him far away from here.”

What Willie has detected is that sacrificing your desires means, in practice, not loving the people you ought to love. Chandran reacts to detection by pushing the sacrifice of his son one step further. Behind Chandran’s fiction that he has sacrificed a career for the sake of a life of self-mortification lies a Hindu tradition embodied, if not in Gandhi (whom Willie and his mother despise), then in what Indians like Chandran have made of Gandhi in turning him into the holy man of the nation; embodied more generally in a fatalistic philosophy that teaches that best is least, that striving toward self-improvement is ultimately pointless.

Though bored by his studies, Willie clearly has gifts as a writer. Prompted by an English friend to whom he shows his old stories, he reads Hemingway. Using “The Killers” as a model, translating situations from Hollywood movies into vaguely conceived Indian settings, splicing stories from London onto stories he remembers from home, he throws himself into a fury of composition. To his surprise “it was easier, with these borrowed stories far outside his own experience, and with these characters far outside himself, to be truer to his feelings than it had been with his cautious, half-hidden parables at school.”

The vein of autobiography in Naipaul’s fictional oeuvre runs deep. But the Naipaul selves do not have a simple relationship to their author: they are stages in a process of continual self-creation and revision. W.S. Chandran is and is not V.S. Naipaul. As beginning writers, for instance, both Willie and Naipaul find inspiration in Hollywood, but Willie is far less literate than Naipaul, who used as models Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, and (it comes as no surprise) Somerset Maugham, with his characteristically English tone, “aloof everywhere, unsurprised, immensely knowing.” Nevertheless, in Willie’s discovery that he is truest to himself when he seems most remote, it is hard not to hear his author replying to today’s dogma that the writer should write from the position of his or her nationality, race, and gender.

For weeks on end Willie is absorbed in his fictions. But then writing begins to lead him to “things he [can’t] face,” and he stops. Never again in his life—at least in the life we read of in Half a Life—does he take up the pen.

He emerges from the storm with a fund of twenty-six stories, which he offers to a sympathetic publisher. The book, when it comes out, is barely noticed, and by then, anyhow, he is ashamed of it. But he does get a fan letter, from a girl with a Portuguese name. “In your stories for the first time I find moments that are like moments in my own life,” she writes. Knowing how his stories were put together, Willie is surprised. Nevertheless the two arrange to meet, and they fall in love. Her name is Ana; she is heir to an estate in Mozambique. On an impulse, Willie follows Ana to Africa and spends eighteen years there as her kept man. The story of those years takes up the second half of Half a Life.

Naipaul’s India is abstract and his London sketchy, but his Mozambique is convincingly realized. Mozambique of colonial times produced no writers of stature. The country’s best writer, Mia Couto, belongs to the post-independence generation, and is anyhow too much under the sway of magic realism to be a reliable chronicler. Thus Naipaul would seem to be free to invent a fantasy antebellum Mozambique of his own. But he does not. His allegiance is to the real, to real history as borne by real people; the second part of Half a Life has a strongly journalistic flavor, with Willie Chandran used as medium for representative vignettes of colonial life.

This part of the novel in fact belongs to a mode of writing that Naipaul has perfected over the years, in which historical reportage and social analysis flow into and out of autobiographically colored fiction and travel memoir: a mixed mode that may turn out to be Naipaul’s principal legacy to English letters.

The picture we get of Mozambique in its last years under Portuguese rule (Willie spends the years between 1959 and 1977 there) is fresh and surprising. Ana is a Creole, an Africanized Portuguese. On the social scale, this ranks her below “full” Portuguese but above mestizos, who are in turn above blacks. To Willie, coming from caste-bound India, minute social gradations based on parentage are of course far from strange.

The circle in which Ana and Willie move is made up of plantation owners and farm managers; social life consists of visits with neighbors and trips to town for supplies. Yet Willie (who is in this respect indistinguishable from his author) explores settler life without the condescension one might expect of a bien-pensant Western liberal. On the contrary, he approves of Creole society, notably of the opportunities it allows for sexual variety. Even when the guerrillas close in and the end grows nigh, his settler friends go on “enjoying the moment, filling the old room with talk and laughter, like people who didn’t mind, like people who knew how to live with history.” “I never admired the Portuguese as much as I admired them then,” he reflects afterward. “I wished it was possible for me to live as easily with the past.”

The freedom to go against orthodoxy evinced here is consistent with Naipaul’s attitude toward his own colonial past, namely that just because he is descended from indentured Indian plantation workers he cannot be locked forever into postures of victimhood. His grasp of imperialism, colonialism, and slavery takes in more than just the Western varieties: he sees India, for example, as more deeply marked by what it suffered under Muslim rule than under the British. In Africa one does not have to be white to be a settler. The East African littoral has absorbed Arabs and Indians as well as Europeans, and Africanized them.

One strand of Naipaul’s complex self-conception and self-creation is as part of a reconquest of Britain by once subject peoples. “In 1950 in London,” he writes in The Enigma of Arrival, “I was at the beginning of that great movement of peoples that was to take place in the second half of the twentieth century—a movement and a cultural mixing greater than the peopling of the United States.” The Enigma of Arrival itself is about reinhabiting the roles of explorer of and settler in rural Wiltshire.

The migrants Naipaul writes about had received an anachronistic colonial education—those who had received any education at all. From another perspective, however, they were trustees of a culture that had decayed in the “mother” country. “Indians are the only surviving Englishmen,” said Malcolm Muggeridge famously. Naipaul’s own often magisterial authorial stance is more Victorian than any indigenous Briton would dare to be.

Willie’s adventures in Africa are mainly sexual. His relations with Ana have never been passionate; he begins to visit African prostitutes, many of them, by Western standards, children. From prostitutes he graduates to an affair with a friend of Ana’s named Graça, and Graça shows him how brutal sex can be. “How terrible it would have been,” he thinks afterward, “if…I had died without knowing this depth of satisfaction, this other person that I had just discovered within myself.” With uncharacteristic compassion, his thoughts go to his parents in benighted India, to “my poor father and mother who had known nothing like this moment.”

Willie has one more stage to attain in his sexual odyssey. With delicate obliqueness, Ana gives him to understand that Graça is mentally unstable. And indeed, as the Portuguese troops pull out and the guerrillas move in, Graça falls into a mania of self-abasement. Willie begins to see why religions condemn sexual extremism. Anyhow, he has grown tired of his colonial adventure. He is forty-one; half his life is over; he takes leave of Ana, retreats to his sister in the snows of Germany; the book ends.

Half a Life is the story of the progress of a man from a loveless beginning to a solitary end that may turn out to be not a true end, just a plateau of rest and recuperation. The experiences that mark his progress are sexual in nature. The women with whom he has them figure as objects of desire, repugnance, or fascination—sometimes all three—reported on with a mercilessly unclouded eye.

In the London part of the book we visit for the third or fourth time in Naipaul’s oeuvre, since The Mimic Men of 1967, the upstairs room with the naked electric bulb and the mattress on newspapers on the floor where the young man first has sex. Each time the scene is reworked; progressively it has become more bestial and more desperate. It is as though Naipaul will not let go of the scene until he has wrung a last meaning from it that it will not yield.

In Africa, as he embraces his first child prostitute, the ghosts of his London women rise before him. But

just at the moment when I was about to fail, an extraordinary look of command and aggression and need filled [the girl’s] eyes, her body became all tension, and I was squeezed by her strong hands and legs. In a split-second—like the split-second of decision when I looked down a gun-sight—I thought, “This is what Álvaro [the friend who has brought him to the brothel] lives for,” and I revived.

Afterward “I began to live with a new idea of sex…. It was like being given a new idea of myself.”

The moment with the girl evokes the unlikely other passion Willie has discovered in Africa: guns. Aiming and pulling the trigger becomes, for him, an existential testing, at a level inaccessible to rational control, of the truth of the will. The African women he sleeps with test the truth of his desire in an equally naked way.

It is in identifying the sexual embrace as the ultimate arena of truth that Naipaul comes closest to articulating the nature of the spiritual journey Willie is engaged on, and to measuring his distance from a way of life—represented, if only parodically, by his father—that treats denial of desire as the road to enlightenment.

Through intimacy with African women, Willie is able to free himself from the ghosts of London. But what is so different about these women? Watching a covey of girls dancing provocatively before their clients, he senses that they embody something beyond their individual selves, some inscrutable “deeper spirit.” “I began to have an idea that there was something in the African heart that was shut away from the rest of us, and beyond politics.”

Naipaul knows Africa well. He has lived and worked in East Africa (“Home Again,” in A Way in the World [1994], is based on his time there); he has written books about Africa, notably In a Free State (1971) and A Bend in the River (1979). Overall his vision of Africa remains remarkably constant, one might even say rigid. It is a “dream-like and threatening” place that resists understanding, that eats away at reason and the technological products of reason. Joseph Conrad, the man from the outskirts of the West who became a classic of English literature, is one of Naipaul’s masters. For good or ill, Naipaul’s Africa comes out of Heart of Darkness.

Half a Life does not give the impression of having been carefully worked over, and the technical weaknesses that result are not negligible. Naipaul’s plan is to present the whole story as if recounted by Willie. Even the story of Chandran père is to be based on what Willie heard from his lips. But the plan is carried out only halfheartedly. Despite the coldness between father and son, Willie is given access to his father’s most secret feelings, including physical repugnance at his wife. At moments the pretense that Willie is guiding the story line is dropped in favor of interventions from an old-fashioned omniscient narrator.

There are other weaknesses. Scenes of literary life in London read as if from a satirical roman à clef to which the reader has no key. The youthful Willie’s love for Ana comes close to falling into cliché. Most strikingly of all, Willie’s story ends not only without resolution but without any glimpse of what a resolution might look like. Half a Life reads like the cut-off first half of a book that might be called A Full Life.

Strictures such as these will not trouble Naipaul. In his view the novel as a vehicle for creative energies reached its high point in the nineteenth century; to write impeccably crafted novels in our day is to indulge in antiquarianism. Given his own achievements in pioneering an alternative, fluid, semifictional form, this is a view worth taking seriously.

Nevertheless one is left at the end of Half a Life with the feeling that not only Willie Chandran but Naipaul himself does not know what will happen next. And what indeed does a forty-one-year-old refugee do who has never worked for a living and has only one accomplishment behind him, a book of stories published years ago? Who is Willie Chandran anyway? Why is Naipaul, author of over twenty books and now approaching seventy, pouring his energies into an alter ego whose distinguishing mark is that he has turned his back on a literary career?

One of the more consistent themes in the story Naipaul tells of his own life is that it was by a pure effort of will that he became a writer. He was not gifted with fantasy; he had only his childhood in paltry Port of Spain to call on, no larger historical memory (this was where Trinidad failed him, and, behind Trinidad, India); he seemed to have no subject. Only after a decades-long labor of writing did he finally come to the Proustian realization that he had known his true subject all along, and his subject was himself—himself and his efforts, as a colonial raised in a culture that did not (he was told) belong to him and without (he was told) a history, to find a way in the world.

What was lost, in the course of his labor of self-construction, was the other side of life, the human side. Half a Life is a story (one among several one can imagine) of where Naipaul might have gone if, having exhausted his first fund of memories, he had, instead of secluding himself with his typewriter, followed his heart.

There was a time, not too long past, when, for a young person blessed with talent and ready to undertake solitary exertions, becoming a writer seemed the quickest of shortcuts from obscurity and poverty to fame and riches. The career of Naipaul himself is a case in point.

To the illiterate and semiliterate, becoming a writer is hard to distinguish from simply getting into print, that is, being able to point to a block of printed pages with your name on the cover. Naipaul’s first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957), gives a not entirely parodic picture of naive authorship. It has now been filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions, with Ismail Merchant directing and Aasif Mandvi giving a thoroughly convincing performance as Ganesh, the obtuse but shrewd young man with writing ambitions.* Ganesh may have only a hazy notion of what authorship really is, but in rural Trinidad that puts him several steps ahead of the rest of the community. The “books” Ganesh ends up writing have nothing creative about them, in fact become part of the holy-man scam (“The Mystic Masseur”) that he and his wife cook up, yet they form a platform from which he can rise to modest wealth and political power.

Like the book, the film runs out of steam halfway through. Nonetheless it provides an affectionate and engaging glimpse into the pre-electronic world of Naipaul’s childhood.

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